This article was published in thejakartapost.com with the title
“I have thought a lot about what people say: Live happily! … People don’t want to see the
naked truth. They turn away revolted from reality …. Earlier today, we were so shaken and
moved by an example of the suffering in life …..“ (Kartini’s letter to Mrs. Abendanon-Mandri,
April 8, 1902)
In the early 20th century, a young woman, not yet 20 years old, named Kartini, thought a lot
about her people, especially women.
Not long ago came the sad news of a young woman from a village in Karawang, a dangdut
singer with three children, named Irma Bule, 29 years old. She died after being bitten by a
poisonous snake during a performance. Irma Bule worked hard singing from village to
village, with a snake as a gimmick. It appears she used the snake, not only as an extra
attraction to her performance, but also to keep audience members, usually men, at bay.
Irma is the face of most Indonesian women. Hundreds of thousands of young women travel
overseas to work as domestic workers without adequate protection from sexual and
physical abuse and extreme exploitation. Irma is also the other face of the home helper or
maids in Indonesia no rights as workers, relying only on employers’ benevolence. As an
activist for several years working with maids and their families, I saw the horrors they suffer:
rejected by hospitals because they had no money, scarred for life by the cruelty of
employers, sources of profit for the hordes of “agents” shipping them overseas.
Then there are the thousands working for a pittance in malls, hotels, cafes and beauty
salons. Hundreds of thousands more work long shifts in the factories on a paltry minimum
wage – if they are lucky – and also often face sexual harassment. I witnessed close at hand
the lines of aching backs and fingers of hundreds of young women slaving for less than the
minimum wage in the factories on the edge of Jakarta, on so-called “long shifts”, scared
even of asking permission to go to the toilet.
And many like Irma end up forced into the dark alleys of prostitution, and even become
victims of trafficking.
That is the fate of most women in the real Indonesia. The feminism that focuses only on a
slogan demanding “the freedom to be me” won’t resonate among that majority. The
freedom they seek is from the structural abuse and exploitation, from poverty and sexism
that poverty, and the exhaustion it can cause, forces them to endure.
I do not mean to be pessimistic about the future of Indonesian women. However, real
change will only come if we face reality honestly.
Kartini was designated a national hero by Sukarno’ in 1964. Since then, on every April 21,
Kartini’s birthday, the country is invited to celebrate the “the success” of Indonesian
women. In celebrations, women and girls are paraded in a kebaya blouse, their hair in a
sanggul or traditional bun, or they join competitions like cooking. Today there are often
also fashion shows or discounts at malls for those women with the money to enjoy
But who was Kartini and what did she think? Indonesian men and women living under the
New Order know little about her. The beautiful and sharp writings of this heroine are still
not taught in school with any seriousness just as the real, every day work and social
situation of most women is never seriously discussed.
Any idealization of Kartini, without adequate discussion of what she struggled for, collides
with everyday reality as experienced by Irma Bule, by the hundreds of thousands of women
migrant workers and the tens of millions of others living in poverty or just above it.
But why are they absent from public conversation?
Or where they are present, they are used for distorted symbolic purposes. The National
Awakening Party recently elevated another dangdut singer , Zaskia Gotik, as their
Ambassador for Pancasila state ideology. Then the Defence Ministry, not wanting to be
outdone, appointed her as a Doctor for the Pancasila Clinic. Zaskia was renown for two
things. One was her “sexy” “duck wiggle” which made her a television celebrity. The other
was her notoriety after answering a question on Pancasila saucily, incurring criticism for
being disrespectful. Asked the symbol on the national emblem representing the fifth
principle of social justice, she answered “a duck bending over”. The correct answer was a
picture of rice and cotton.
Politicians and state officials are easily smitten with the popularity of a celebrity (usually
female celebrities) who they then make spokespersons on important issues. It is the
gimmick of hypocrisy.
Kartini Day celebrations are meaningless if the real situation of most women is not
addressed; if Irma Bule is ignored. Such celebrations will be hypocrisy when most women
are still entangled in poverty; when they face great risks of death during childbirth, due to
lack of nutrition and lack of access to health care in many villages.
Also, the actual words and ideas of Kartini must be made available, especially to women
and young people. It would not at all be beyond the government’s means to reprint on a
massive scale, Kartini’s collection of letters titled Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang (Out of
darkness into light) and distribute them to all schools and sell it cheaply in bookshops.
The manipulation of Kartini and of women as a symbol must end. The real Kartini must be
studied. The real life of the majority of women must be understood. Perhaps getting the
state to help achieve article five of Pancasila, namely social justice for all Indonesians,
including, women, is going to need us, women and men, to act together.
The writer is a playwright, a theater producer and director and the founder of Institut
Ungu (Purple Institute, Women’s Art and Cultural Space).